National / Sports / April 15, 2010

MLB and racism

Orlando Hudson said something controversial. Well, insinuated something controversial – didn’t quite say it.

During a little interview in the Minnesota Twins’ locker room, Hudson speculated about why Jermaine Dye and Gary Sheffield remained free agents nearly two weeks into the season.

“We don’t even get into it,” Hudson said. “We both know what it is.”

Racism. That’s what Hudson wants to say, racism. And I understand – I do. I really do. Major League Baseball does not have a good history in this regard. We are talking about a game that didn’t integrate until after the Second World War, a game that is still overwhelmingly white, both at the player and personnel level. Surely there are elements of racism in society, and it will certainly rear its ugly head in MLB from time to time.

But I don’t think that’s why Jermaine Dye is out of a job.

I think I know what it is: Jermaine Dye is not a good baseball player anymore. Don’t get me wrong — he was. He could have won the AL MVP in 2006, just one season after being crowned World Series MVP. He was beloved in Chicago and still is for what he did four and five years ago. But it’s not 2005, not 2006, not even 2007 or 2008.

He has turned down offers from multiple teams, most notably the Cubs and the Nationals. At the start of the offseason, he stated he would not consider doing anything but playing the outfield. How unreasonable was that? Since 2006, Dye has been far and away the worst right fielder in baseball. His legs have deteriorated so much that he looks like he’s running through cement. His once-feared arm is no longer a deterrent to guys tagging up from third on flies to shallow right.

And off the bat he stated he would only play the outfield. Ok, what if a team found that to be a reasonable demand? How’s his bat?

Dye posted a .793 OPS in 2009 — not bad, but not good either, especially when his fielding is considered. But, in a vacuum, acceptable for a right fielder with a higher upside. His splits are more troubling.

First-half slash line (AVG/OBP/SLG): .302/.375/.567

That’s a tremendous line, and worthy of the attention Hudson feels Dye deserves. How about the second half?

Second-half slash line: .179/.293/.297

That’s bad. 41 percent worse than the average, according to OPS+, a park and league-adjusted metric. But what could explain such a precipitous drop?

Dye himself blamed a crowded outfield, due to the mid-season acquisition of Alex Rios and manager Ozzie Guillen’s masochistic Scott Podsednik fetish. He said things got tough when he had to rotate between the bench and the outfield and designated hitter. That’s a reasonable claim.

It’s just untrue. Dye missed time for a stiff back, but other than that he was a mainstay in the White Sox’ second-half lineup. He started at DH five times out of 60 second-half starts — hardly a jumbled rotation.

And it’s a sad ending, really, for Dye to blame the organization that helped revive his career and paid him mightily to do so. The Sox took a chance after it looked like Dye’s career was essentially over after awful injuries midway through the decade, and each reaped the benefits.

But Hudson’s comments are indicative of something more, and that’s the growing racial tension in baseball. Los Angeles Angels outfielder Torii Hunter outlined a sinister scenario while participating in a roundtable for USA Today last month.

“As African-American players, we have a theory that baseball can go get an imitator and pass them off as us,” Hunter said. “It’s like they had to get some kind of dark faces, so they go to the Dominican or Venezuela because you can get them cheaper. It’s like, ‘Why should I get this kid from the South Side of Chicago and have Scott Boras represent him and pay him $5 million when you can get a Dominican guy for a bag of chips?’ … I’m telling you, it’s sad.”

I don’t know what to say. I understand Hunter’s frustration; Major League Baseball is a real good ol’ boys operation — and would seem more so if the Masters hadn’t just happened. Still, Hunter missed the mark here.

First of all, Dominican guys are rarely had for a “bag of chips.” Millions are doled out in foreign bonuses on 16-year-old Dominican players every year, some of whom are eventually represented by Boras.

Calling Dominicans and Venezuelans “impostors” isn’t, well, isn’t very astute. Having just been to a White Sox game this week, I’m well aware of the sad, sorry state of fan society. Still, I’m not sure they are somehow fooled into thinking Miguel Tejada was born and raised in Compton, Cali. If they’re that stupid, I doubt they care about diversity.

But like I said, I understand, and as I write this I can’t help but agree with Hunter’s sentiment — just not his execution. Baseball is too white. MLB has tried to address this by operating a program called RBI — Reviving Baseball in Inner-Cities. RBI’s mission statement clearly states an intention to promote “greater inclusion of minorities into the mainstream of the game.”

It hasn’t worked, at least so far. As far as including African-Americans from inner-cities goes, basketball is cheaper, has a richer history of African-American participation and is a far more popular game worldwide. In the Caribbean, MLB teams operate baseball academies aimed at gobbling up and nurturing top talents. Down there, it’s, “Hey, here’s a glove and a bat, use one well and get the hell off this island.” It’s not so compelling up here.

Hudson and Hunter are getting at something, but looking in all the wrong places. Jermaine Dye has surely been a victim of racism at some point, but not this offseason. As for Gary Sheffield, that dude’s an abhorrent person — yellow, blue, black or white.

Kevin Morris


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